EDIT 22/08/2016: At the time of writing this post and other Ovid-themed ones, I was almost convinced that the first layer of the manuscript’s history was composed slightly after the publication of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Since then, my insights have evolved and now I lean more towards an earlier date of first composition. This means that likely Ovid’s Hellenistic sources have been used, and not Ovid’s work itself. It is a common theme throughout my studies of the manuscript’s ultimate sources, that later Roman authors are hard to distinguish from the Hellenistic sources they preserve. I will still leave this post as-is. 



But Ovid’s stories have been used as inspiration at some point in our manuscript’s history. Who worked these stories into the Voynich sources, when and where, I don’t know (yet). It must have been someone who was familiar with classical mythology, writing for an equally educated audience. What I will tell you today, is which stories have been used, and where to find them.

Those who have read my recent post about Hellenistic Plants probably realize that we will be talking about narrative mnemonics today – in that post, I focused on emblematic mnemonics. Just to illustrate the difference again, below is an emblematic and a narrative picture of Jesus.


Emblematic: I don’t have to know any story about Jesus to understand this image. I recognize the figure right away, because of his attributes and his pose. For a summary of some emblematic plants in the mythological foldout, see the Hellenistic Plants post.


Narrative: I can’t rely on emblematic aspects alone to explain why Jesus is about to punch a man in a purple dress. I need to know the story. Generally, there is also more going on in narrative depictions: tables are flipped over, several groups of people are present, animals are running away. Of course, narrative scenes can still contain emblematic elements, like halos.

I will now present some of the clearest narrative mnemonics in the Voynich manuscript. All mnemonics have been take from the mythological foldout: f89r and f89v. As for now, I think this most elaborate type of mnemonic is only present on this particular foldout; other folios in the root-and-leaf section have much simpler or no mnemonics. I will ignore most botanical aspects for the purpose of this post, and focus on the mnemonic image that’s been worked into the plant.

Whenever possible, I will cite directly from the text that seems to have been used as a source. This is never certain, of course; Ovid used several Hellenistic sources, and later authors must have retold these stories as well. However, with each additional narrative mnemonic analyzed, the case for Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a source of inspiration for these particular images – or a text very close to it in content – appears to grow stronger.

vA4: Daedalion is turned into a hawk

“Perhaps you think that bird, the hawk, that lives on prey, and terrifies other winged creatures, always had feathers. He was once a man…”

For my full analysis of this plant, including the intention of the mnemonic, see this post: A4. The Mourning Hawk: Saffron. For the original story that inspired the mnemonic, see here. I will quote from this text to let Ovid himself explain the Voynich drawing. This story is from the Metamorphoses, book 11.

The plant drawing is badly faded, so below I show again the image where I traced the lines. Let’s see how Ovid’s story of Daedalion features in this plant.


Daedalion, a renowned warrior,  had a daughter, Chione, “endowed with great beauty, who at fourteen, and ready for marriage, had a thousand suitors.” Chione brags about her beauty, comparing herself to Diana (Artemis), the goddess of the hunt.

She set herself above Diana, and criticized the goddess’s beauty. But, the goddess, moved by violent anger, said to her: “Then I must satisfy you with action.” Without hesitating, she bent her bow, sent an arrow from the string, and pierced the tongue, that was at fault, with the shaft. The tongue was silent, neither sound nor attempts at words followed: and as she tried to speak, her life ended in blood.

Daedalion, overcome with grief, tries to take his own life.

He escaped us all, swift with desire for death, and gained the summit of Parnassus. When Daedalion hurled himself from the high cliffs, Apollo, pitying him, turned him into a bird, and lifted him, pendent on suddenly-formed wings, giving him a hooked beak, and curved talons, his former courage, and greater strength of body. Now, as a hawk, he rages against all birds, is merciful to none, and, suffering, is a cause of suffering.

In summary, the following elements from this story have to be known to understand the mnemonic: a woman gets an arrow in the mouth.  Her father is turned into a hawk.


rC2: Dragon teeth turn into men


This is one of the most elaborate mnemonics on the Mythological Foldout. I have discussed it in depth in this post: rC2: The Dragon, Cadmus and his Sown Men. There, I already linked it explicitly to quotes from the Metamorphoses, book III. For brevity’s sake, I will just repost the conclusion here:

Cadmus drives his SWORD into the SNAKE’S MOUTH, pinning it against a TREE.


Afterwards, he sows the teeth into a plowed field, and warriors grow out of them. These sown men fight each other until five remain.


This is our second mnemonic that can be explained flawlessly by using one of Ovid’s stories.

rA2: Pan competes with Apollo in a music contest

I haven’t written much about this plant yet. It’s the second one on the recto side of the foldout, and it looks like this:


For the purpose of our story, however, we have to turn it around. There is a reason why the mnemonic is drawn upside down, which I will explain later. Flipped around, it looks like this:


We’ll have to introduce our protagonists and tell the story before we can explain this, but for now, have a look already and see if you can recognize anything. You know, instruments… parts of the body…

The story that’s at the base of this plant’s mnemonic, is another one from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book XI: Pan and Apollo compete before Tmolus. This is Apollo, the god of music and poetry, among other things:

In most depictions, from antiquity to the modern day, he is shown with his typical attribute: the lyre. He will be one of the two contestants in Ovid’s music battle. His opponent is Pan, the god of shepherds and rustic music, and a lover of Nymphs. This is Pan. Yes, the one on the right:

Shepherd pursued by a phallic Pan | Greek vase, Athenian red figure kraterGreek, ca 470Bc (source)

In many depictions, pan could be recognized by his pan flute. As you can see in the image above, however, he was given other… attributes as well, associated with fertility.

Ovid tells the story of how Pan challenged Apollo in a music contest judged by the mountain god Tmolus: Pan’s flute versus Apollo’s lyre. In the end, Tmolus “ordered Pan to lower his pipes in submission to the lyre.”

That’s all there is, and that’s all we have to know to understand this mnemonic as well: Apollo’s hand is shown playing the lyre, and Pan is symbolized by his phallus. It is not known whether Pan was really this aroused during the competition.


So now you probably want to know why the mnemonic is upside down. For that, we have to look at the label, which spells the foreign name of this plant:

osnap Luckily, there are no unknown glyphs here. Ignoring the initial “o” as usual, the local name of the plant is SNAP. I haven’t tried to identify this plant yet, but it was called something like snap by the locals. How is a flipped Pan supposed to help me remember the word snap? Well, just turn Pan’s name around, like the mnemonic:

NAP to remember the plant name SNAP

Too complicated? Not really: modern memory experts, who are rediscovering the techniques common in antiquity and the middle ages, agree that if your brain has to work a bit on a mnemonic, the memory retention will be greater.

These images weren’t made by someone who couldn’t draw decent plants. They are a conscious creative effort to assist the language learner. They are, in their own way, visual Metamorphoses, showing an image in the stage between botanical drawing and memory hint. Both, but not either one.

And with this, we can add a third story from the Metamorphoses to our list.

vD2: Tantalus

I discussed the Tantalus plant, including a plant ID, in this post. I won’t repeat it here, since this post is getting rather long. I’ll just say that this is our fourth story that could have come from the Metamorphoses. Tantalus and his torment are mentioned in books IV, VI and X.

You, Tantalus, cannot catch the drops of water, and the tree you grasp at, eludes you.

His mention in book X is short, but beautiful, as Orpheus sings his song in the underworld and all eternal torment is halted there for a moment:

The bloodless spirits wept as he spoke, accompanying his words with the music. Tantalus did not reach for the ever-retreating water: Ixion’s wheel was stilled: the vultures did not pluck at Tityus’s liver: the Belides, the daughters of Danaüs, left their water jars: and you, Sisyphus, perched there, on your rock. Then they say, for the first time, the faces of the Furies were wet with tears, won over by his song…

vE1&2: Hercules drags Cerberus into the sunlight, Cerberus vomits

The Hercules plant (see here) contains several emblematic elements (like the club), but he forms a narrative mnemonic scene together with the plant to his right, Cerberus (see here). Again, these plants are discussed in great detail in their respective posts, so I will focus on the Ovid connection here. A minor indication that these plants belong together is seen in the fact that two of their respective roots overlap completely, which rarely happens in the Voynich. I will count these two as one narrative scene. Cerberus has three necks, but only one head is drawn. I have recently discovered why this is the case, but I will explain this in a later post. It has nothing to do with the story.

Cerberus is mentioned in five books of the Metamorphoses, but the Voynich mnemonic scene was chosen from book VII:

There is a dark cavern with a gaping mouth, and a path into the depths, up which Hercules, hero of Tiryns, dragged the dog, tied with steel chains, resisting and twisting its eyes away from the daylight and the shining rays. Cerberus, provoked to a rabid frenzy, filled all the air with his simultaneous three-headed howling, and spattered the green fields with white flecks of foam.

The image below is edited and rather silly, but it works for quickly pointing out how the various elements correspond to Ovid’s story. For a full analysis, please refer to the original posts.



While analyzing these narrative mnemonics one by one, it wasn’t clear to me immediately whether they came from the same source or not. After this post, however, it seems very likely that the five of them were taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or closely related sources. Additionally, there are a number of other plants, especially on the recto side of the f89 foldout, which appear to contain similar stories, but I am not ready to write about those yet. It will be interesting to see whether they follow the same path.

Looking back at these plants and the way Ovid’s stories have been interwoven with them as a didactic tool, I can only express my utmost admiration for the creative effort that went into them. It is ironic that these images, which are seen by many as bad drawings of plants, are in reality so much more.


Header image: Ovid as imagined in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.